FOI Advocate Blog

The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited; we will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit http://foiadvocate.blogspot.com/.
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November 26, 2013 3:48 PM

From Courthouse News Service: SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Comments last week from judges, labor representatives and open government advocates poured criticism on the "vagueness and breadth" of exemptions to a draft rule that would open up meetings of Judicial Council advisory bodies.

But, when asked if the draft rule applies to the Judicial Council's powerful internal committees, Justice Douglas Miller who heads the Executive and Planning Committee answered directly and clearly, "Yes it does."

"We used the legislative language to guide our definition of an advisory body to the Judicial Council," he added. That legislative language defines advisory body as "any multimember body created by formal Judicial Council action to review issues that will be reported to the council."

But criticism rained down on the draft rule's many exemptions that would allow advisory bodies to continue operating in the dark.

Visit Courthouse News Service for more.

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November 11, 2013 9:22 AM

From TheCalifornian.com: A San Francisco law firm is jumping on a local bandwagon asking the California Supreme Court to review an appellate court’s decision that would ultimately close all conservatorship hearings to the public.

In a Thursday amici letter to the Supreme Court, Duffy Carolan of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, argues the Sixth District Court of Appeals relied on a faulty understanding of the law to rule that all Lanterman-Petris-Short Act proceedings ought to be closed.

[...]

On Thursday, Carolan joined in with a petition of her own on behalf of the First Amendment Coalition, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, Los Angeles Times Communications LLC, The Center for Investigative Reporting and The McClatchy Company.

Visit TheCalifornian.com for more.

The First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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October 8, 2013 8:45 AM

From Daily Trojan: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission top administrator John Sandbrook was found guilty of testifying falsely during USC’s lease negotiations with the Coliseum on Oct. 4, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavin ruled that Sandbrook falsely stated under oath his reasons for why the lease negotiations between the commission and the university could be kept secret, which both contradicted Sandbrook’s prepared agenda and violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open-meeting law guaranteeing that actions and deliberations of public commissions, boards and councils be conducted openly.

[...]

The ruling was made in light of a lawsuit against the commission by the Times and Californians Aware, a nonprofit 1st Amendment organization. The suit alleged that the agency repeatedly violated the Brown Act while conducting meetings behind closed doors to grant USC control of the Coliseum.

Visit Daily Trojan for more.

The Californians Aware is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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October 4, 2013 12:34 PM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week. While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

The Journal News sues Putnam County over gun records

image of Access keyThe Journal News announced yesterday that it had filed suit against Putnam County and county officials for their refusal last winter to release public records of gun-permit holders in the county. In its news article about the suit, lohud.com said the paper did not plan to release the names of individuals holding permits. It had done so when it published information about gun-permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties.

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Iowa Public Information Board to wait before asking lawmakers to tweak law

After a quick discussion of changes they would like, members of the three-month-old Iowa Public Information Board decided to wait at least a year before asking lawmakers to tweak the year-old legislation that created it. Executive Director Keith Luchtel proposed expanding the 2012 law to cover advisory panels and task forces established to “gather information concerning public policy issues.” Iowa courts have ruled those panels now are not covered.

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Red flags missed as St. Louis County health official collected $3.4 million for his company

A high-ranking officer in the St. Louis County Health Department used an alias and scores of bogus invoices to collect $3.4 million from the county over a six-year period that ended last month when the official killed himself as the scheme unraveled. And emails obtained by the Post-Dispatch under the Sunshine Law show that county financial officers ignored red flags that pointed to the company Edward Mueth established to supply and maintain health agency laptop computers.

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Judge says Coliseum panel apparently violated California's open-meeting law

A judge Thursday said the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission appeared to have repeatedly violated the state's open-meeting law during its months of closed-door deliberations on USC's lease of the taxpayer-owned stadium. In pointed language, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavin said he was prepared to issue an injunction against the commission that would restrict what it could discuss in secret sessions and require it to record all of its private meetings for three years.

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Group asks judge to reject Sen. Leah Vukmir's open records exemption claim

An investigative group has asked a judge to reject a Republican state senator's arguments that's she's immune from a lawsuit demanding records from her office. The Center for Media and Democracy has filed a lawsuit demanding Leah Vukmir turn over records from an American Legislative Exchange Council conference. The state Justice Department has countered the Wisconsin Constitution provides lawmakers immunity from civil lawsuits during the legislative session.

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Continued FOIA requests weighing on Belding (Michigan) city manager

The drama that has unfolded due to numerous amount Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from one resident to the city of Belding does not appear to be ending anytime soon. Members of Belding City Council voted to deny six FOIA appeal requests during Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting, while voting to reverse the denial, in part, of a seventh appeal, all coming from Belding resident Kimberly Orlich.

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Cuccinelli: Open government, then fight health law (Virginia)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — After days of equivocation, Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli on Thursday called on Congress to reopen the federal government, then fight over whether to starve the new health care law of funding. Cuccinelli told reporters after a Thursday-morning event that shuttering the government is not the right way for opponents of the 2010 Affordable Care Act to gain leverage to defeat the law he wants to see repealed.

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Fired CEO OF the New Mexico Finance Authority files public records lawsuit

The former top executive of the New Mexico Finance Authority sued Gov. Susana Martinez and one of her cabinet secretaries for failing to release public records requested in April. Ex-CEO Rick May brought a lawsuit Wednesday in state district court in Santa Fe against Martinez and Finance and Administration Secretary Tom Clifford.

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Oakland, Code for America unveil public records program

In a push to improve government transparency, Oakland city officials on Tuesday launched RecordTrac, a new program designed by Code for America that allows users to request public records online. RecordTrac shows those seeking records where to find them — even if they aren’t filed under the City of Oakland. Officials said the process by which such requests are filled can be tracked through the program, which will give city government feedback as to whether records searches are going smoothly. The program is designed to allow users to explore all past records requests by anyone who has used the program.

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Shoreline Coalition for Open Government launches

The recently launched Shoreline Coalition for Open Government (ShoreCOG) acts as an independent, non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and defending the Public’s right to know in matters of public interest and in the conduct of the public’s business. We modeled ShoreCOG after the highly respected Washington Coalition for Open Government.

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Oakmont (Ohio) talks behind closed doors on proposed gas station

Oakmont residents wanting to hear how the borough will respond to the Speedway gas station proposal were shut out of those deliberations on Monday. Council said little about the issue publicly and adjourned behind closed doors to discuss it in a private, executive session.

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Story County (Iowa) fights the fed to release public records

Attorneys representing the County government filed a motion in federal court on Monday asking to dismiss a federal action blocking the Story County Sheriff from releasing emails about the network called FirstNet. Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald, who sits on the First Responder Network Authority, a federal board overseeing the creation of the nationwide network, shared a letter with government investigators that said there was a conflict of interest between FirstNet board members and wireless carriers and that the system has been developed without a “public safety point of view,” according to Politico.

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Manhattan Beach (Ca.) city council oks remaining open government initiatives

After months of hanging low on the Manhattan Beach City Council’s meeting agenda, the city’s open government initiatives were adopted in full Tuesday following deliberations that resulted in several amendments. The Public Records Protocol Act was one of the six remaining initiatives that came before the council. Guided by the California Public Records Act, which establishes the public’s right to access records concerning the “conduct of the people’s business,” the protocol dictates a set procedure for city staff handling public record requests.

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Texas using custom-made drug to execute criminals: FOIA request

HOUSTON — Texas prison officials disclosed Wednesday that they are using a compounding pharmacy to obtain the drug used during executions. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, responding to a Freedom of Information request from The Associated Press, released documents showing the purchase of eight vials of pentobarbital last month from a compounding pharmacy in suburban Houston. Such pharmacies custom-make drugs but aren't subject to federal scrutiny.

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August 30, 2013 9:19 AM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week.

While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

Battle Ground (Wash.) school board violated the state's Open Public Meetings Act, expert claims

image of Access keyBattle Ground school board members violated the state's Open Public Meetings Act when they voted behind closed doors in executive session to spend $400,000 to buy out the contract of the district superintendent, said one of the state's top advocates for open government. "If they voted in a secret meeting to spend $400,000 and didn't bring it to a public vote, that's completely illegal," said Toby Nixon, president of Washington Coalition for Open Government. "If the vote was held behind closed doors in executive session, whether it was part of a regular meeting or a special meeting, then under the Open Public Meetings Act, that action is null and void," he said.

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San Mateo County debuts records database

In a gesture of transparency, county officials earlier this month debuted the Open Data Portal, a new online listing of arcane spreadsheets and miscellaneous public information. The data might seem scattershot right now, but San Mateo County officials say it’s just the start of what they believe will revolutionize local public records. County Supervisors Dave Pine and Warren Slocum championed committing $460,000 in Measure A sales tax money to fund the new database over the next two years with the goal to to push any and all public information onto the site. The site is expected to grow exponentially as a warehouse for all county records for public perusal. Pine described it as a “living and evolving” project. “My bias is: the more data, the better,” he said.

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Florida governor appoints special prosecutor to investigate public defender's office

Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed the state attorney for the Gainesville area Thursday to investigate allegations about the deletion of public records and questionable behavior in the office of Public Defender Matt Shirk reported this week in the Times-Union. . . . In the order appointing Cervone, Scott assigned him to investigate the Public Defender’s Office for “potential prosecution and all matters related to allegations of public records laws violations and any related misconduct.”

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Hanover County (Va.) supervisors want state agency to review Va.’s open meeting rules

The Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution in July asking the Virginia General Assembly to change open government regulations to allow larger groups of locally elected officials to meet behind closed doors without notifying the public. “While there was some initial adverse reaction to this, it might be better if there was a calm, deliberate study of this over the course of the next year by the (Freedom of Information Act) Advisory Council, at which point they’ll make a recommendation to members of the General Assembly,” said Hanover County Attorney Sterling E. Rives III.

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Eagan appointed chair of state Connecticut FOI commission

A lawyer and former deputy mayor of West Hartford has been chosen to serve as chairman of Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission. The appointment of Owen Eagan was announced Tuesday by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Eagan is a partner with the firm Eagan, Donohue, Van Dyke & Falsey and a former town councilor and deputy mayor in West Hartford.

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Release of L.A. teachers' performance ratings delayed by judge

. . . [T]he teachers union argued that "immediate release of the scores will cause irreparable harm to privacy rights, and that harm dramatically outweighs any prejudice or inconvenience that might be caused by a brief delay in public release of the records" pending the appeal. The Times had opposed a delay, arguing that the Legislature had severely restricted agencies from using appeals as a delaying tactic to keep public records secret. The Public Records Act bars courts from ordering delays unless those fighting disclosure have a probable chance of success and would suffer "irreparable damage" by the release of documents before the case was settled.

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Orange County Health Care Agency wants $54,371 to produce email records

Orange County’s Health Care Agency (HCA) wants to charge $54,371 for a response to a Voice of OC public records request to review emails from the last six months of 2012 – a whopping $338.14 for each day of emails reviewed. The request asks for electronic copies of any emails referencing the names of six different drugs, exchanged between Dr. Clayton Chau, a former psychiatrist at the agency, and members of its formulary committee, which routinely evaluates the master list of approved medications, between 2007 and 2012. . . . Voice of OC has requested a breakdown of this cost estimate. The California Public Records Act, established in 1968, does not allow government entities to charge fees for inspecting records or the cost to search, review and delete information. They can, however, charge for the cost of copies and for data compilation and extraction of information from electronic records.

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Court rules Atlantic City marketing arm not subject to public scrutiny

An advocate of open government has lost a lawsuit that sought to have Atlantic City’s casino-funded marketing coalition declared a public agency. John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, claimed that the Atlantic City Alliance is actually an arm of government and should have to disclose its records to the public. But a New Jersey appeals court ruled Tuesday that the ACA is the “private” part of a public-private partnership between the state and the casino industry to help revive Atlantic City’s tourism.

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August 23, 2013 8:49 AM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week.

While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

US seeks to shield emails about emergency network

The Department of Justice obtained temporary legal relief Tuesday to block the release of emails to and from an Iowa sheriff who serves on a federal board charged with building a high-speed broadband network for emergency responders.

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court gives state judges power to rule over public records

image of Access keyPennsylvania’s highest court is leaving it up to judges to resolve disputes over access to public records under the state’s Right to Know Law. Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law was overhauled five years ago and the Office of Open Records was created. The state Supreme Court has now ruled in the case of a Pittsburgh newspaper’s request for information about the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, and how Commonwealth Court handled an appeal of a decision by the Office of Open Records.

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Battle to restrict Washington public records requests heats up

Those looking for a more transparent government are increasingly relying on public records to make it happen. They hope the more documents they obtain the clearer their view of what's really going on behind closed doors in school districts, city halls and county buildings. But there are those throughout the public sector convinced some of these Washingtonians are abusing the Public Records Act.

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California lawmakers to review public records bill

Senate Constitutional Amendment 3, introduced by San Francisco Democrat Mark Leno, would let the state opt out of reimbursing local governments for public meetings and records requests. Those governments would still have to comply with the California Public Records Act and Ralph M. Brown Act, two laws that force local agencies to hold open meetings and allow access to records, but under the proposal would now have to absorb the compliance costs on their own. The state is currently required to reimburse local agencies for those public services.

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Concerns raised about membership of Connecticut panel

The president of a Connecticut open government advocacy group is questioning the makeup of a task force charged with recommending how to balance victim privacy with the public's right to know, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said Wednesday he's concerned the 17-member panel appears weighted in favor of keeping certain information from public release.

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Lawsuit filed over charge for public records in West Palm Beach

A millionaire has filed lawsuits that challenge charges for a public record he requested from the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office. In the lawsuits filed Tuesday, Marty O'Boyle is challenging charges of $1.89 and $739.46. He told The Palm Beach Post (http://bit.ly/176vtV9 ) he filed the charges to help the little guy. "If they're going to refuse to give five public records to a guy like me, what are they going to do for the working guy who doesn't have the resources I do?" O'Boyle said.

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Belgrade (Mont.) High School principal refuses to hand over public records

Belgrade High School Principal Russ McDaniel refused to hand over public documents Thursday regarding a contract for a story on vending machines. McDaniel said he was “too busy” and the public records request was “not a high priority” for him. ... Montana law reads “every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of public writings of this state...” The law further reads that public documents are available for inspection at all times during office hours.

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Click Cable TV, broadcasters keep fees secret in Tacoma

Each month, the city of Tacoma writes checks to broadcast companies for the right to carry their programming on the city’s cable network. Those checks, like other expenditures by government agencies, are public records — public, that is, unless you want to know the amounts. Click Cable TV, in response to a request from The News Tribune, said the public is barred from knowing how much the city pays local broadcasters. Tacoma Public Utilities, which operates Click, recently released images of the checks it issued to five broadcast companies between 2007 and 2013 with the amounts blacked out ... Read more here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/2013/08/21/2743400/click-cable-tv-broadcas...

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Macomb County (Mich.) board uses FOIA to get budget documents from county exec's office

When Macomb County commissioners couldn’t get information they wanted from the county executive’s office, they did what any citizen might do. They filed a Freedom of Information Act request. They were then told the request would cost them $300 in copying fees. The fees were waived last week after at least one commissioner called it ludicrous for the county to be charging the county board for information. ... “This is outrageous on a number of levels,” Commissioner Fred Miller said during Wednesday’s meeting.

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August 21, 2013 8:48 AM

From Voice of OC:  Garden Grove city officials are delaying the inspection of public records after Voice of OC requested to view the public calendar of its city manager, Matthew J. Fertal.

City staff are now saying that the city has 10 days to determine whether the document is public information.

Voice of OC asked for access to Fertal’s calendar Tuesday morning and was told by his assistant, at the instruction of City Attorney Tom Nixon, that the request for this document must be submitted in writing, which would give the city up to 10 days to respond.

When his assistant was asked the reason why the calendar could not be produced immediately, Fertal, who was passing by, approached the reporter from behind the counter and said, “You already got your answer” and “Stop harassing my employees.”

Continue ...

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August 13, 2013 11:18 AM

From San Jose Mercury News:  Six years after San Jose required its elected officials and key staff to post their public calendars online, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors is poised to enact its own policy on Tuesday. But open-government advocates and even some supervisors say it's an essentially toothless policy proposal that needs to be rewritten.

[...]

More importantly, critical information about board members' county-related appointments -- including the dates and the names, titles, affiliated organizations of those attending the meetings and a general statement of the topic of the meeting -- would only be recorded voluntarily or "encouraged," but not required to be posted by the supervisors in their online calendars.

That has left open-government advocates questioning the point of having such a policy at all.

Get the rest here.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, argued that instead of adopting something that really doesn't mean anything, each supervisor should pledge on the record at Tuesday's meeting that they would agree to adhere to a requirement to post all county-related appointments and relevant information.

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First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds.

 

July 30, 2013 9:19 AM

From CivSource:  California Common Sense (CACS) a non-partisan non-profit founded by Stanford students and alumni to open government to the public, develop data-driven policy analysis, and educate citizens about how their governments work has launched a new open data portal. Data will include national Medicaid spending figures, along with several California specific spending datasets available as .xls, .xlsx, .csv, .pdf, and other files.

Socrata has put together the website, and CACS analysts have built extensive datasets by attaining the information from government sources, merging them across years, and formatting them for web-based access. CACS’s open data portal enables average citizens, journalists, researchers, and policy makers to efficiently explore government data directly and in one place.

CACS will continue to add and update datasets on the portal.

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July 23, 2013 12:58 PM

Opinion from Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware, via San Jose Mercury News:  Recent press reporting suggests that legislators in Sacramento, pressured by state employee unions and retiree associations, may be considering amending the California Public Records Act to exempt from public disclosure the names of CalPERS pensioners linked to their retirement payments -- information that's been open to public scrutiny for the past 28 years.

Californians Aware has issued a caution to one such lawmaker about the futility of such legislation, which would add no protection for most pensioners and which, to pass constitutional muster, would have to adopt findings demonstrating necessity, when all the proponents' announced rationales for such secrecy have been argued to the appellate courts and found unpersuasive.

First, almost all the information in question is already in the public domain as of 2011; see the searchable newspaper database based on CalPERS information at http://www.mercurynews.com/salaries/pensions. Thus only a small percentage of pensioners (the most recent) would be made anonymous by new legislation, since even if the newspaper-published data were taken down, the fact of its prior release by CalPERS would mean, under the Public Records Act, that anyone could demand its rerelease.

Moreover, the proponents' argument that retirees could be preyed upon as senior citizens if their names were publicly tied to their pensions has been rejected by the Court of Appeal as baseless in three separate decisions statewide dealing with county retirement associations' efforts to keep their members' names and pension amounts confidential.

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Californians Aware is a member of NFOIC. --eds.

 

July 18, 2013 9:50 AM

From San Jose Mercury News:  A state Court of Appeal has ruled that a small-town California newspaper publisher does not have to pay legal fees to a school board he sued over his public records request —a decision hailed by First Amendment advocates as a victory for government transparency.

A loss in the case could have chilled the public and journalists from challenging government agencies that are withholding documents sought under California's Public Records Act, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition (FAC). He said that fear of being hit with legal fees could deter people from suing to obtain public records.

"This has reaffirmed that people have a right, if they are denied public records, to go to court and try to get that decision reversed and as long as it's in good faith you won't be in the disastrous position of having to pay the government's legal fees," said Scheer. "Had it gone the other way, all bets would have been off."

FAC organized the appeal and, with one of its board members, underwrote the paper's legal expenses.

First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds.

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July 18, 2013 9:31 AM

From inewsource:  In the midst of an inewsource investigation and with state and federal agencies eyeing its practices, the North County Transit District is considering a policy change that would direct employees to delete certain emails after 60 days.

NCTD currently keeps emails, which often are important documentation of official public business, for two years. The NCTD board is scheduled to vote on the matter Thursday, and it comes at a key point in the agency’s accountability.

[...]

inewsource has submitted dozens of CPRAs over the course of the last six months to obtain NCTD documents — some of which were emails sent or received by staff members and board members. By doing so, inewsource was able to shed light on the SPRINTER shutdown, high staff turnover, severance agreements, headhunter fees, audits, and a number of other issues that have made up the bulk of the more than 20 stories since February.

This new policy would change all of that.

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